Natural Light Workshop

Reef Manta in Raja Ampat

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 400, f.6.3, 1/60, Natural Light

It's easy to fall into the habit of continuously strapping on the strobes when we take our cameras underwater, and for good reason too. The sudden burst light from our flash gun's can create highly dynamic photos awash with color. However, if we only seek out subjects which we can illuminate with our strobes, we are significantly diminishing our underwater photographic possibilities and putting ourselves in a creative box by. We're creative people, we shouldn't be in any boxes.

As you may have noticed, there are many subjects that are just to big or too far away to effectively illuminate no matter how many lights we clamp to our cameras. When it comes to lighting an entire reefscape with your strobes, forget about it. So, what do we do for these types of situations when the power of our expensive lighting devices just can't cut it? The best solution is to turn to that giant ball of fire in the sky and use a considerably more simple lighting technique which is most often referred to as Natural Light.

If you're unfamiliar with natural light underwater photography you're probably wondering, how do we keep the colors? Won't I only capture different shades of blue? There's a very simple function on our cameras, from compacts to DSLRs, which allows us to add the necessary amount of red or pink or whatever color is needed to restore white and bring back the colors that are lost with depth. Depending what camera you drive, this function will either be called Custom White Balance or Manual White Balance. Selecting a custom white balance is different from camera to camera but the basic idea revolves around taking a photo of something that's white, such as the palm of your hand or a slate, then selecting this photo as the Custom White Balance. To save myself time I've photographed my hand at six different depths giving myself six different gradients to choose from and they are now saved onto my memory card. 

Split shots are another possibility with natural light!

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 200, f.8, 1/200, Natural Light

Important Things to Remember

-   Nice sunny days are the best!
-   Keep it shallow. 0-16 meters will give you the best results
-   A nice wide angle lens will give you the most dynamic range in color tones and help you to capture more.
-   Keep the sun behind and watch your shadow.
-   Make sure you are white balancing at the depth the subject is at, and not the depth you are at.
-   Don't be afraid to shoot down.

The Reef
A shallow hard coral reef is the easiest place to start practicing natural light photography and will give you loads of different styles to choose from. For the most basic wide angle reef photos I will typically rise up from the reef a meter or two and take a downward angle. I like to put the horizon just at the top of the frame with a bit of the water's surface if possible.

In very still and very shallow water, one meter or less, the reefs reflection on the surface can be added as a powerful element to the composition. To retain the best reflection possible and not disturb the waters reflections a snorkel will come in handy. Take a slightly upwards angle with a quick shutter speed, 1/160 or faster so all water movement is frozen. 

Hard coral Reef

The colorful layersand textures of shallow hard coral reefs such as this one in Raja Ampatmake amazing and very simple natural light subjects.  

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 200, f.10, 1/125, Natural Light

Mangrove Reflection

It may not look like much, just a bit of atree branch dipping into the water with some white sand and seagrass, but with the added reflection and brilliant colors the wholescene comes to life in a surreal perspective.  

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 200, f.8, 1/160, Natural Light

Simplicity in Sand

I absolutely love shooting sand as it's a great canvas for just about any subject. The simplicity of the sand with it's endless waves and the contrast it creates with the blue water is just supreme. If you add a large ray to picture...winner!

Rays of any sort make great subjects for natural light/sand photos as they don't typically have a lot of color to begin with and their dark flat bodies really stand out against the light background. Again, I like downward angles to showcase the unusual body shape and include as much of the clean white sand as possible. To make the photos stand out a bit more I will often times change photos with a lot of white sand and a darker subject into black and white.

A pair of marbled stingrays slowly pass underneath me on a beautiful blanket of white sand in Komodo National Park. 

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 400, f.8, 1/125, Natural Light

Too Far

As we explore different compositions and work with various subjects underwater, there will be times when you want the subject position a bit further away, out of the reach of the strobes. For example, you might take minimalist approach and have a freediver descending into the depths from far away but also want to retain the natural skin colors. Or you might have some epic pelagic mating behavior taking several meters below you and no hope in artificially lighting them. As you may have guessed, using that magic white balance button and the power of the sun lets us capture these moments without losing any of the natural color.  

Oceanic Manta and Reefscape

Shooting large subjects and scenes such as this five meter manta with the accompanied reef would be impossible to illuminate with strobes. Natural light with manual a custom balance allows us to do just this!

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 400, f.6.3, 1/80, Natural Light


Even though the freediver is a goodfive meters away, well out of reach of any strobe, the natural colorsstill remain thanks a custom white balance I quickly did using thepalm of my hand at five meters. 

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 125, f.8, 1/160, Natural Light


When using flash for underwater photography it's not uncommon for our fishy subjects to quickly shy away, giving us a small window to get things right. Now that we've left our retina shattering strobes back on the boat or simply turned them off, our subjects with eyes are more than likely to thank us and come closer, for longer. Also, because we are not waiting that interminable amount of time for our strobes to recycle their power, we can basically hold down the shutter button as that magic moment passes inches from your dome port.

I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with this spotted eagle ray with multiple close encounters likely due to the fact that my strobes were turned off. 

Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 Fish Eye Lens @ 10mm

ISO 400, f.10, 1/80, Natural Light

Like all techniques in underwater photography, natural light has it's time and place. As you'll see in your own lighting endeavors, not all subjects and environments make great candidates for this particular style while others are. As you learn to read the light you'll not only will have a much better understanding of light in general, but also discover a myriad of new subjects for you to direct your lens at that you would have otherwise overlooked. 

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